When original AC/DC singer Bon Scott died in February,1980, it shocked the Australian band’s fans – a group that had recently grown by a healthy margin, thanks to the success of their last album, 1979's Highway to Hell. Few could be more devastated, though, than the other members of the group.
"It stunned everyone,” rhythm guitarist Malcolm Young told MOJO in 2000. “There was a nothingness around everyone – no ambition left, just nothing."
His brother, lead guitarist Angus Young, agreed. “Everyone was walking around in silence,” he said. “Nobody knew what to do…We were so depressed."
Scott’s family had accepted the loss more quickly than had Scott’s bandmates, to the point that after the funeral, Scott’s father took them aside to tell them something they hadn’t expected to hear.
“When we were leaving,” Malcolm Young recalled, “Bon's dad said, 'You've got to find someone else [to sing], you know that.’ And we said, ‘We don't know what we're doing.’ He said, 'Well, whatever you do, don't stop.’”
Several weeks later, the Young brothers put their grief aside and began playing again, messing with new songs they had been working on with Scott prior to his death. Duly inspired, they knew they had to face the question of who would sing the new material. One of the names that came up was that of Brian Johnson, who had led the Newcastle, U.K.-based rock band Geordie, which had scored a handful of minor hits on the British charts in the early ‘70s. One of those songs, "All Because of You," had even hit the Top 10.
The name was familiar to the Young brothers, because Bon Scott himself had told them about Johnson.
"Bon [had] seen this guy perform in Geordie and he was rolling around the floor screaming his lungs out,” Angus Young told MOJO. “Bon said it was the best show he'd ever seen. For Bon, Little Richard was the rock 'n' roll singer, so for him to say this about Brian we thought, ‘We'll go see if we could find this guy Bon was talking about.’ That's how we got him.
"Funny thing is," Young continued, with a laugh, "when I told Brian about it later he said, 'I'll tell you what happened after that show – I had to go off to the hospital. I had appendicitis; that's why I was on the floor screaming.’"
A band representative reached out to Johnson, an odd conversation he recalled to Rolling Stone:
“The phone rang and I picked it up and it was this lady with a German accent,” Johnson remembered. “She was going, ‘Iz ziss Brian Johnson?’ I said, ‘It is. Who is this?’ And she said, ‘Ziss I cannot say. Vee are vahnting you to come to London and to sink with the band [to] audition.’ I said, ‘Which band?’ She said, ‘Ziss I cannot say also.'”
Eventually, Johnson extracted from the woman that it was an audition for AC/DC. On the appointed day, a nervous Johnson was late.
"We were all sitting there going, ‘Where's this guy Brian?’” Malcolm Young remembered. “He should have been here an hour ago. [Someone else said] 'Oh him? He's downstairs playing pool with the roadies.' So we thought, ‘Well, at least he plays pool.’ Someone went to get him.”
The audition went well, indeed, and on April 19, 1980, Brian Johnson was made an official member of AC/DC. The band immediately decamped to Compass Point Studio in the Bahamas, to begin work on Back in Black, Johnson’s first album with the group, one that eventually became one of the biggest-selling records of all time.
“I was scared shitless,” Johnson told MOJO. “But the lads made me feel dead comfortable. The first time I met them I felt as if I could go out and have a pint with them. I knew what they were going through when Bon went; it's only natural. You don't just walk away and forget that sort of thing, but they never let me feel left out.”